At 23, Violinist Already Carries a Storied Career

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Competition Video

Four clips from the Indianapolis competition track Augustin Hadelich from preliminaries to finals. Watch as:

Augustin Hadelich i

Violinist Augustin Hadelich, 23, toured Europe as a child performer; after a horrifying burn injury at age 15, he's returned to concert work, and last year he swept nine of the top awards in a prestigious international competition. Rosalie O'Connor/Courtesy Augustin Hadelich hide caption

itoggle caption Rosalie O'Connor/Courtesy Augustin Hadelich
Augustin Hadelich

Violinist Augustin Hadelich, 23, toured Europe as a child performer; after a horrifying burn injury at age 15, he's returned to concert work, and last year he swept nine of the top awards in a prestigious international competition.

Rosalie O'Connor/Courtesy Augustin Hadelich

Reuning & Son is a respected violin shop in Boston. Some of the world's top players come here for strings, bows, instruments or repairs. Owner Chris Reuning collects their autographs on two dedicated violins. Now, with his recent win at the International Violin Competition in Indianapolis, 23-year-old Augustin Hadelich joins their ranks.

"Would you like to sign right next to Josh Bell?" Reuning asks him.

Some say Hadelich is poised to be the next Joshua Bell. In September, he swept nine awards at the prestigious, grueling 17-day event where 51 young participants from 22 countries went head to head, round after round, playing pieces by Bach, Paganini, Beethoven and others.

Even after years of performing, Hadelich admits the competition was a big deal.

"It's incredibly intimidating at first, because there's so many people," he says. "And if you think about it, it's unbelievably scary to play in that setting."

But scary can be good: "I think the audience can sense if the soloist is nervous; it means that he cares," Hadelich says. Malcolm Lowe, veteran concertmaster for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and one of the competition's judges, agrees.

"I'm sure he was very keyed up to play — it was evident," Lowe says. "But instead of detracting from the performance, it actually made it more exciting."

And excitement is key in a competition like the one in Indianapolis. "The prizes, especially in a competition like this, are many concerts [and] recording engagements," Lowe says. "We need to find someone who we think can sustain that kind of career and be able to go on the concert stage and move people."

Hadelich, Lowe says, moved everyone from the moment he touched bow to strings.

"There are moments as a violinist that you expect certain things — a slide or a portamento at a certain place, or a certain dynamic change," Lowe says. "He didn't necessarily do those things, so that you were always expecting something that was going to take you down a slightly different path than you had heard before, and you knew that that was his path that he was choosing."

Hadelich chose his path as a violinist early in life, at age 5. He was born in Germany but grew up on a farm in Tuscany. His father was his first teacher, and after his debut at a village church, Hadelich, still a child, toured Europe. But when he was 15, a fire on his family's farm severely burned much of his upper body, including his head and bow arm. He didn't know whether he'd ever be able to play again.

"It was a very tough time," he says. "But then at one point I tried to play again, and I realized that my fingers were still doing fine, and it was just that I was very weak — that my body had other problems to deal with. So I realized that once I got over those problems, then I would be able to come back to the way I was before."

After more than 20 operations and two years of recovery, Hadelich emerged as a young-adult violinist. He went on to study at the Juilliard School in New York. That's when Massachusetts-based conductor Jonathan McPhee first heard Hadelich's solo work, on CD. Two years ago, McPhee invited him to play with Symphony by the Sea in Marblehead, Mass.

"First of all, you could hear a pin drop; that's the first thing that happens," McPhee recalls. "And then, secondly, you just feel the whole audience lean into you. It's that real, it's that palpable; you can feel it."

McPhee also is musical director for the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, a Boston group made up mostly of doctors and surgeons; Hadelich recently played with the group, and conductor MacPhee says he feels as though he discovered the young virtuoso in a way, having recognized the violinist's talent years before the Indianapolis competition.

"I fully expect that it's probably going to be awhile before I get him again, because the buzz is already out there," McPhee says. "Everybody is curious, and they want to hear him play."

Hadelich welcomes that attention but says he's pacing himself.

"There's a danger if you play too many concerts, that after a while it becomes a routine and then you stop caring," he says. "But I'm not playing that much right now that I feel that. I like the pressure; it would have to be a lot more to get a nervous breakdown — I would have to play 100 concerts a year."

Next January, Augustin Hadelich will make his Carnegie Hall debut.

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